Latrobe boys seek redemption after early playoff exit in ’17

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Thursday, February 15, 2018 | 6:27 PM


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When asked what drives the Latrobe basketball team, what really motivates the talented group for which he plays, junior guard Reed Fenton gave a three-fold answer.

“The 33-year WPIAL championship drought,” Fenton said, “the fans that come out and support us no matter what; (and) each other also — trying to win for each other is a big one.”

Latrobe has been hungry for another lengthy playoff run after the Wildcats reached the WPIAL semifinals two years ago.

Last year was a flash, bang, over, postseason, despite a thumb-twiddling bye that dampened the mood.

This year's group wasn't strapped with the expectations of its predecessors the last two years, but could it be the one that makes the most noise?

To be determined.

No. 9 seed Latrobe (15-7), the highest-scoring team in Section 3-6A (72.5 ppg), is anxious to take the court and find out. It faces No. 8 Butler (18-4), the team that knocked it out of the tournament last year, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in a WPIAL first-round game at Fox Chapel.

“Teams are so individualized as far as characteristics and players,” Wildcats coach Brad Wetzel said. “This year's team kind of bloomed late. You can see the maturity in this group. Now, can we make the turn with them?”

Latrobe was pegged as a contender last season, a No. 2 seed led by the exceptional senior duo of Austin Butler and Jake Biss. But that team became stale after a long first-round bye and was dumped in the quarterfinals by No. 7 Butler, 70-64. The Wildcats then fell to Pine-Richland in a PIAA first-round thriller, 83-82.

So simply, all Latrobe has to do to one-up last year's team is win one playoff game. And in a year where some consider 6A wide open, maybe more than one could be in the cards.

“Not sitting and waiting could be what gets us going,” Wetzel said. “Our guys want to get rolling. That was tough last year. Waiting for 2 12 weeks was not to our benefit.”

Fenton and fellow junior Bryce Butler have formed one of the WPIAL's top scoring tandems, Fenton at 22.5 points per game and Butler at 21.0.

Seniors Jason Armstrong, Marcus Dudzenski and Anthony Fannie have been calming influences and key contributors, along with several others who have deepened the bench as the season wore on.

“Last year's playoff performance is definitely some motivation for this year,” Fenton said. “But at the same time we know that we have a much different team and situation than last year so we're excited.”

Latrobe lost two of its final three games, but went hoop-for-hoop with a pair of other 6A contenders, falling to Fox Chapel, 75-65, and Penn Hills, 94-82.

While it's come close, Latrobe has not been to the WPIAL finals since 1985.

Once again, Latrobe looks like a team built to spread the floor and score. It's the defensive stops that could make the difference Saturday.

“I think the key is finding that next level in terms of rebounding and defense,” Bryce Butler said. “We have seen bits and pieces of it, but we have yet to put it all together. Defense will absolutely be one of the main keys to success — very crucial.”

Saturday's winner doesn't get much of a reward: No. 1 Mt. Lebanon (19-3) will be up next Feb. 24.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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